Who are three biggest names in the Premier League? The three stars, the three headline makers? You’re not thinking of footballers are you? As if they are still important. It’s all about managers now. Wenger this, Mourinho that, Van Gaal the other.
All at various time treated as if they are demi-gods. As if blessed with genius. People hang off manager quotes as if they are offerings from a higher force, profound, witty or even wildly controversial. But they are just a few quotes, often ad-libbed, ill-advised or plain dull.
All three when you boil it down, are experienced high-end football managers, not miracle workers. And none of the three to my knowledge, can actually bring themselves on the field to head the winning goal at the far post to secure a vital victory.
So to a considerable extent the manager, this figurehead to an increasingly overblown degree, needs players to actually take responsibility. All the motivation, instruction and demands in the world won’t work if the player doesn’t ‘want it’ too. Everywhere we find examples of managers driven to despair by the under-performing star player who has the talent, but not the application, to succeed.
Mario Balotelli has become the classic case.
There is plenty of criticism for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool for spending over $25 million on a player who Mourinho, Mancini and Prandelli had condemned.
But I have sympathy. Liverpool needed to bring in a striker proven at the highest level, however risky. It has proved to be a mistake but it’s not the ridiculous decision claimed by some observers. In fact I would argue it’s the mediocrity running through the squad that is Liverpool’s problem, not one flop in the transfer market.
And to be fair to Rodgers – a young manager let’s not forget – he appears to have learned from mistakes at handling the media. His bullish approach with Suarez the summer before last was replaced with diplomacy and tact and he got a brilliant season out of a player who didn’t really want to be there, with minimal fuss. It almost won Liverpool the league.
With Balotelli so far Rodgers has resisted the temptation to ‘air the dirty laundry.’ Though could of course snap at any moment. He could easily have annihilated Balotelli for the shirt swap, appeased furious supporters and flexed his muscles. He would have been 100% in the right? But is controlled aggression better for him and the club? Almost certainly.
Mancini couldn’t hide or control his exasperation with less-than-super Mario at Manchester City and all both times I watched City training during that period the two Italians were openly unhappy with each other.
Did Mourinho handle him well at Inter by washing his hands of him? Or is there anyone that could get this sulky, apathetic talent performing?
Another ‘waster’ footballer who’s been in the headlines is Moroccan Adel Taraabt at struggling Queens Park Rangers.
A situation handled terribly by manager Harry Redknapp, though it’s nearly impossible not to feel a smidgeon of sympathy for dear old ‘Arry. His openness with the media, his ‘wear your heart on your sleeve’ approach, brings increasing trouble in the modern world. People will pounce hungrily if you moan that your best player is not in the team ‘cos he’s three stone overweight.
1. Aren’t you the manager? Can’t you sort it out?
2. What are you telling us for? Tell HIM – and take away his bag of doughnuts.
3. What good is possibly going to come of slating him to the media – in fact it will lead to a humiliating dressing down from the Chairman and probably edge you towards the exit door.
But quiet tolerance of an under-performing key player can also be damaging. How was Torres allowed to get away with it at Chelsea. If swift action had been taken and a goalscoring striker was brought in, Chelsea would actually have won the league last season.
Though Torres was at least, to an extent, trying. And had a good attitude. It’s the difficult attitude that poisons, and the most high-profile example comes from another sport.
The reputation of English cricket has been torn apart by the turbulence and politics around the sacking of star player Kevin Pietersen last year. He of the giant ego and personality issues, who happens to be a very good batsman (though not nearly as amazing as his loyal supporters would claim). What interests me about the Pietersen situation is the lazy, obvious assertion that ‘you have to be able to handle difficult players as a captain or manager’. Yes, and you may also need a few of the huge slices of luck England had in the 2005 Ashes that cemented his (and his captain’s) reputations. Not sure ‘man management’ had much to do with it at that stage.
So what’s the best approach for a manager when a superstar is not delivering? Perhaps it’s not so much an approach as an aura. Where a player would barely dare to not give their all.
Ferguson had it. Reading Roy Keane regularly trying to dismantle him now is somewhere between embarrassing and sad. Let us not forget he got the best out of Keane, a man who was prepared to walk out of a World Cup.
I’m not sure even Balotelli would do that. Though at a World Cup there is always plenty of great shirts to try and swap.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport